6-Month Delay In Census Redistricting Data Could Throw Elections Into Chaos

Feb 12, 2021
Originally published on February 13, 2021 8:33 am

Updated at 7:08 p.m. ET

The 2020 census data needed for the redrawing of voting districts around the country are extremely delayed and now expected by Sept. 30.

A senior Democratic aide who was briefed by the Census Bureau on Friday, but not authorized to speak ahead of the bureau's planned public announcement, first confirmed the schedule change to NPR earlier on Friday.

Then, in a statement, the bureau said the timing shift allows it to "deliver complete and accurate redistricting data in a more timely fashion overall for the states," which are expected to receive the information at the same time rather than on a rolling basis as after past head counts.

Dogged by the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump administration's interference with the census schedule, the latest expected release date — six months past the March 31 legal deadline — could throw upcoming elections into chaos in states facing tight redistricting deadlines for Congress, as well as state and local offices.

In a press briefing Friday, James Whitehorne, the head of the bureau's redistricting office, said that if the agency completes its quality reviews earlier than expected, it would release the redistricting data earlier. But Whitehorne also said: "We don't anticipate finishing much before Sept. 30."

Redistricting experts say the later in September the data are delivered, the more states expected to have to scramble to finish drawing new maps in time for the 2022 elections.

Before the latest delay, first reported by The New York Times, was confirmed, the bureau had been signaling since April 2020 that states would likely receive redistricting data by the end of this July. But last month, the bureau tried to reset expectations to after July 30. The statistical agency, a bureau official explained, needed more time to run quality checks on duplicate and incomplete census responses.

Since counting ended in October, the bureau has been trying to sort through irregularities in records from college dormitories and other group living quarters, plus a higher than usual number of responses gathered without preassigned "Census ID" codes that help with matching addresses.

Delays in finishing this process, which started later than usual because of the pandemic, have resulted in a delicate situation. There's a tension between the bureau having enough time to produce accurate information and states and localities having to meet redistricting deadlines. And that could create ideal conditions for gerrymandering, says Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for Common Cause, a government watchdog group.

"There is a quiet conversation going on in legislatures right now about whether the delay actually might be a helpful game changer to allow them to pass midnight bills and do the dirty work outside of the scrutiny of the public," Feng says.

That "dirty work" could include using the time crunch as an excuse for rushing the approval of maps that benefit one political party over another or distort community representation — all while public hearings and other transparency efforts are shortchanged.

"We are heading into a redistricting cycle where it will be a bare-knuckle battle for control," Feng says. "Those who are in power are going to use every tool in the toolbox to try to eke out a win. And if that means passing gerrymandered maps in the dead of night, they're going to do it."

In a report released Thursday, Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, warned that redistricting after the 2020 census could be "the most challenging in recent history."

Some states, however, have been planning ahead. Last summer, the California Supreme Court granted extensions to deadlines for finalizing redistricting maps. And in November, voters in New Jersey approved a referendum to amend the state's constitution so that the drawing of new voting maps can be delayed by two years.

The bureau has also pushed back the release of new state population counts that determine each state's new share of 435 seats in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. Those numbers are now expected sometime within the range of April 16-30.

Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, along with Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans from Alaska, announced Friday they plan to introduce a new Senate bill that formally extends the legal reporting deadlines for census results.

"The Census Bureau should take all the time it needs to report its data and make sure every person is counted as mandated by the Constitution," Schatz said in a statement. "Our bill would extend these statutory deadlines and ensure that we get a fair, accurate count."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. Census Bureau has announced yet another major delay for the 2020 census result. This time, the bureau says the data needed to redraw voting maps won't be available until the end of September. That's about a six-month delay past the usual schedule. That holdup could throw elections around the country into chaos. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census. He joins us now from New York. And, Hansi, give us a little more detail here on what's at stake for elections.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Well, for many state and local redistricting officials across the country, this means they have a lot less time to redraw the voting districts that determine, for the next 10 years, the area's members of Congress represent, areas state legislators represent, even areas that school board members represent. And another thing to keep in mind here is that, you know, the bureau is still trying to clean up the mess made by Trump officials who made last-minute schedule changes to the census schedule.

So there is this tension point between the Census Bureau having enough time to make sure the data are as accurate as possible and states and localities meeting redistricting deadlines. And a big concern among redistricting experts right now is that this could create ideal conditions for gerrymandering. And I talked to Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for the government watchdog group Common Cause. Let's listen to what she said.

KATHAY FENG: There is a quiet conversation going on in legislatures right now about whether the delay actually might be a helpful game-changer to allow them to pass midnight bills (laughter) and do the dirty work outside of the scrutiny of the public.

CORNISH: Two different descriptors there - helpful game-changer and dirty work. What does this actually look like when it comes to redistricting?

WANG: Well, we could see, for example, state lawmakers using this time crunch as an excuse for rushing to approve maps that don't fairly represent all communities. Maybe they're designed to benefit one political party over another. The fear right now is that public hearings' transparency will fall by the wayside. But I should point out, some states have been tracking signals from the Census Bureau for months now that this redistricting data would likely be late because of the pandemic and the Trump administration's interference.

New Jersey, for example, is set to hold elections this November, and New Jersey voters passed a referendum to amend the state constitution so that it can delay drawing new voting maps by two years. And last summer in California, the state Supreme Court granted deadline extensions for finalizing new maps. So we'll see what other states and local governments do now, now that they know that the Census Bureau's confirmed this new release date for redistricting data - September 30.

CORNISH: What has the Census Bureau said about what's causing the delays?

WANG: The bureau says it needs more time to run quality checks, that, you know, this is a process that started late because of COVID-19. The bureau has a lot of duplicate and incomplete responses from last year's census, and there's not enough time under this usual schedule to run all those quality checks. And what's been very challenging for the bureau are these records from colleges, for example, that look like the schools misreported all student residents living in just one dorm. And you have to remember - all this information, you know, gathered in the middle of the pandemic, lots of people moving around and lots of confusion about where to get counted for the census. So the bureau says it needs time to sort through all of that.

CORNISH: And yet these aren't the only delays. What's the status of some of the other things you're looking into?

WANG: Well, last month, the bureau confirmed there's also delays for new state population counts that determine each state's new number of votes in the House of Representatives and Electoral College for the next 10 years. And I'm going to be watching to see when Congress will pass a new law that will formally extend the census deadlines. The bureau says those apportionment counts won't - are now expected by the end of April.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covering the census. Thank you for your reporting.

WANG: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.